OED100: Revising Function Words in the OED

OED100: Revising Function Words in the OED

Function words are the words that enable language to operate, rather like the gears in a machine. Typically they don’t have a referential meaning of their own but connect together other words which do have referential meanings. Function words comprise all the pronouns (me, you, who), determiners (a, the, every), prepositions (of, against, during), and conjunctions (and, or), many of the commonest adverbs (not, ever, away), and auxiliary and modal verbs (be, do, can); many of them belong to several word classes (e.g. much, that). Function words often develop referential senses (e.g. ‘the whys and wherefores’, ‘the yearninɡ for the Great Beyond’) and non-function words often develop function-word uses (no one even noticed, he’s just left).

Function words are an essential part of the language. Without them we could not construct meaningful sentences (the first five words in this sentence are function words). They are also among the commonest words. They comprise roughly 70 out of the 100 most frequent words in English, and a high proportion of the top 1000. Many of them are also among the largest entries in the OED, especially the modal verbs, and prepositions such as in, with over 80 senses. And many of them are among the oldest words, with relatives in other languages that show they existed in the Indo-European parent language.

For these reasons we have been prioritizing the revision of function word entries in the OED for a long time. About two years ago we made this activity into a formal project with the aim of covering all the remaining highest-frequency items (up to about 50) by 2025, as we feel it will bring the greatest benefit to our users. Function words are spread throughout the alphabetical range of the dictionary, but there are certain clusters, such as demonstratives beginning with th- and interrogatives and relatives beginning with wh-.

You might assume that such words do not change much over time, but while most of them have kept their major functions much the same since records began, many have changed significantly, and all continue to develop new uses. May, for example, originally meant ‘have power to’, then ‘be able to’, then ‘be permitted to’, and finally ‘be likely to’. Its past tense might has for long been used in hypothetical senses (e.g. ‘if that had come sooner, my life might have been different’), but within the past century may has begun to displace it (e.g. ‘If he had not invaded then eventually the islands may have fallen into their lap’).

This is one example of the way in which such entries shed light on the development of everyday usage, and it often involves disagreement about perceived ‘correctness’ (e.g. ‘somebody with a high opinion of themselves’, ‘each person introduced themself’). Often it is informative to see how far back controversial items go: e.g. ‘whom are we as mere mortals to argue?’ (2001), ‘Tell me in sadnes whome she is you loue?’ (Shakespeare).

The use of the function words in putting together grammatical sentences is central to the teaching and understanding of English. A comprehensive and authoritative account of such words, with their rich and complex histories as contained in the OED, is a vital resource for anyone seeking expertise in the workings of the language. The purpose of the function words project is to ensure that the OED provides such an account, and demonstrates the unique contribution that the research and revision of the OED makes to scholarship.

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